There are over 50 National Parks and protected areas in Ecuador. Combined with 40 plus active and inactive volcanoes, it is pure agony having to choose what to visit and what to pass up. The Andes run north south down the center of Ecuador and we knew we had to do some hiking in this region, also known as the Sierra.
We decided to do a 3- day hike on the Quilotoa Loop, a series of hiking trails connecting remote Andean villages. The beauty of the hike is that you can carry just a small daypack, and stay in a hostel each night.
Leaving Vanna safely in the city of Latacunga, we hopped the 930 AM bus for the village of Sigchos, a two hour ride. Twenty minutes before we reached our destination, the bus halted at a construction area. An argument ensued outside the bus. The bus would not be allowed to proceed for at least 2 hours, because one man in a water truck wanted to water the few miles of road under construction.
This made no sense. There was plenty of room to pass the water truck on the wide road. But the bus driver lost the argument. Locals began picking up their luggage and heading uphill on foot. Bob and I shrugged. Why not? Picking up our bags, we trudged up a trail. When we reached the other side of the construction, a guy offered us a ride to Sigchos in his truck. That was lucky!
For the next 3 days we trekked over narrow trails or dirt roads, up and down through rugged hills that stretched to meet steep ridges, deep canyons, and rushing rivers. The layers of green and blue lines connecting rugged peaks and deep valleys were postcard perfect. Each day provided us with an endless array of stunning landscape.
We walked through villages and cornfields, past big black snorting pigs, countless cows, and wooly white sheep with their cute little lambs. At one point, we quite literally walked the cow path as a man herded four of them down the trail after us.
Bob and I had to jump up the slope and hang on while the cows passed, their wide bellies leaving no room for us in the narrow gully.
Occasionally we spoke with the local indigenous people. It was Easter weekend and school was out. We saw kids playing hopscotch, scratching the squares into the dirt. Adults waved, or pointed out the way, or gave us a babble of directions to which we answered “si, si”. Then we asked each other, “What do you think he said?”
On the second afternoon we stopped at a wood shack with a sign that offered coffee. Nine year old Leonardo was running the cafe, while his family were at church down the road. His long black hair was in a ponytail that went down to his waist. He sang to himself as he prepared the kettle, and brought us out two thick brown cups of hot water, sitting on flowered saucers. A jar of Nabob and a jar of sugar. Then he sat contentedly with chin in hands, as he watched us drink the coffee.
Both nights we stayed at hostels that seemed more like mountain spas. At the Lulu Llama Hostel, we spent hours in the large hot tub, heavenly after a long day on the trail.
At Chugchilan we stayed at the El Vaquero Hostel where Victor, the kindly owner, stoked up two wood fired saunas. What a treat. Meals were included at both hostels and we ate family style, in large dining rooms with big wood tables. Morning and evening we sat and talked with travellers from Ireland, Czech Republic, Netherlands, America, and Germany.
On the third day, we reached the volcanic ridge about mid afternoon. Lake Quilotoa was nestled in the crater way below. The water was a deep mountain azul green. Beautiful. We stayed a while enjoying the view, other hikers coming and going.
From there we took the wrong path.
It looked innocent from the rim, but it gradually turned into a goat path, leading down inside the crater. It went on and on, and it seemed to me as if we were getting nowhere. The town of Quilotoa was not in sight.
As we approached a lookout point, we were greeted by a local woman. She asked us where we were going. “Quilotoa”. I pointed down, she pointed up. She offered to be our “guía” guide. Bob didn’t think we needed a guide. But we did need to get to the village in time to catch the bus back to Latacunga. She said we could be in Quilotoa in thirty minutes. That sounded good to me. We had a deal.
You know why it was thirty minutes. Because she walked straight up that steep crater. No zig zag path for her. She wore a skirt and flat black rubber looking shoes, and carried baby Amy Lyn in a scarf sling on her back. I staggered and gasped and tried to keep up. She waited patiently whenever I stopped. And then we went straight up again. Several times she offered to carry my maleta ( backpack). I said “no gracious “, because I wasn’t going to let her carry the baby AND the backpack. But it was tempting.
Finally back on top of the ridge, a flat wide trail led to the village. Our guide’s four young children came rushing to greet us. They smiled and shyly told us their names and then each pointed out the holes in their shoes. Then our mother-guide-entrepreneur demonstrated the tear in her shoe, which incidentally hadn’t slowed her down any. But she wanted new shoes for the kids and no doubt the reason that she was trying out her guiding skills on lost gringos like us.
Near the city of Riobamba, Chimborazo is the highest peak in Ecuador at 20,702 feet.
We decided on a day tour there, a combination bike and hike.
The van picked us up at 930, joining a couple from France and a young couple from Chicago, Tyler and Flor. Heading west of Riobamba, we soon left the trees behind, driving through barren hills, then higher passed fields of rock. On the hills we saw herds of vicuña, a relative of the llama, which live wild in the Andes. A coyote roamed around the rocks in the snow and we were also lucky to see two falcons, which apparently are rare sightings.
Indigenous folklore say that a falcon sighting will bring good luck all day. Unfortunately for us, the luck did not last that long.
From the parking lot we hiked up passed the mountain climbers refuge, reaching an altitude of 5100 meters.
There was a layer of sticky snow, making a brilliant shine over the rocks. The hike was a slog due to the altitude, but we made it as far as you are allowed to go without having climbing gear.
After the hike, the plan was to bike back to the village of San Juan. It would be all downhill. What could be better than that.
Everyone geared up in balaclavas, gloves, helmets, shin pads and knee pads.
But before we could leave, it started to snow those little hard pellets that sting the face. Visibility was poor as we headed down the dirt road. There were plenty of potholes and ruts to dodge.
The pace was fast. It was a thrill, but a challenge to control.
Then an accident.
Right in front of me, Flor’s front wheel suddenly wrenched to the right, putting the back tire into a hard sideways skid. Instantly her light body was airborne, flying high over the bars, and then plunging to the ground. Head first. She lay limp, no movement. Everyone skidded to a stop and ran for her. It was awful. Her husband Tyler crouched over her calling and calling her name.
In time, Flor regained consciousness, the van arrived, and she and Tyler were transferred to a car, headed for a clinic in Riobamba.
It knocked our enthusiasm.
The snow turned to cold hard rain. The accident and the freezing temperature put the French couple off the bikes and back into the van. I gave it up a while later. But old man Bob cycled the entire downhill of about 30 km. The others were amazed at how we Canadians could stay out in the cold. I tried to respond but how do you explain. We have had a lifetime of enduring wet mitts and freezing toes. I laughed and said we have experienced the same weather on summer canoe trips. They didn’t think that was funny.
While the mountains, snow capped volcanoes and waterfalls are amazing, so are the people of Ecuador. We met Ecuadorians in indigenous communities, in cities and in coastal villages. They are kind in a quiet way. Always making sure that we could find our way, or asking if we needed anything. Genuine.
The Plan. Time to move on. Heading for the border of Peru.